Preseason Preview: Quarterbacks

Northwestern loses its billboard quarterback, but has plenty of talent entering the 2012 season. The Wildcats have an interesting competition for playing time. launches its preseason position preview by looking at NU's quarterbacks.

Kain Colter

Colter was Northwestern's most versatile and arguably its best offensive player last season. Filling in at practically every offensive position except the line, he needed just 34 receiving yards to finish the year with 500 passing, receiving and rushing yards.

His athleticism and varied skill set make him a welcome addition for any offense, particularly Mick McCall's high tempo, spread attack, where his talents can be put to good use on almost every play.

This season, however, Colter will be under center more often than not. While filling in for Dan Persa last season, he proved more than capable of running McCall's complex system.

He helped the Wildcats score a combined 64 points against Boston College and Eastern Illinois, logging a combined 301 passing yards and 180 rushing yards. More importantly, Colter was at his best when his team needed him most: during a crucial, late-season, high-stakes matchup with Nebraska.

When Persa went down with a shoulder injury late in the second quarter, NU's upset chances—and, more importantly, its hopes of bowl-eligibility—appeared more bleak than ever. Enter Colter, who rushed for two second half touchdowns and threw for another en route to a 28-25 upset over the then 10th-ranked (BCS) Huskers.

Colter's heroics were the lasting memory of NU's 2011 season, the ultimate testament to his breathtaking athleticism, accurate arm and uncanny late-game savvy. While it would be foolish to expect the rising junior to reprise his mastery at Lincoln on a consistent basis, there's reason to think Colter can thrive as the full-time starter.

Lingering questions about Colter's arm strength have all but dissipated after an offseason spent strengthening the shoulder he injured as a senior in high school. Hardly any doubt remains as to whether he can make the necessary throws on a consistent basis, especially after a full slate of spring practice in which his throwing velocity appeared much improved from last season.

With Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Demetrius Fields, Kyle Prater—pending an NCAA ruling on his transfer appeal—and a host of other explosive receivers, Colter will have no shortage of targets on which to test his improved arm strength and accuracy. Of course, McCall will not shy away from taking full advantage of Colter's dual-threat capabilities. So you can expect a fair share of designed runs and perhaps a few option/pistol formations.

In any case, Colter has the tools and the weapons to excel as starter. Succeeding a legend won't be easy, but as far as replacements go, Colter is as qualified as any.

Trevor Siemian

Siemian appeared in eight games last season, completing 16 of 26 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns. Most of his action came in garbage time, against the likes of Eastern Illinois and Indiana, which casts doubt over the validity his above-average stat-line.

He shined in the spring game, when he completed 8-of-14 passes for 119 yards and led two scoring drives with touchdown passes to Demetrius Fields and Cameron Dickerson. Siemian's throws were crisp and accurate, and his pocket awareness was impressive.

An increased workload is in store for the rising sophomore in 2012, and—unlike last year—you can expect him to be under center during important, meaningful game situations.

While Colter remains the unquestioned starter at qb, it's hard not to think that McCall will opt to use his hyper-athletic quarterback as a receiver or in the backfield to some degree. In those situations, Siemian will have free reign to showcase his pin-point accuracy and strong arm.

Two-quarterback systems are rarely, if ever used, but in this case, with this NU team, it might be an entirely good idea. For one, Siemian has proved himself as an accurate passer, one who will have no problems connecting with NU's spate of explosive receivers when given the opportunity. He's a more polished pocket-passer than Colter, and his stronger arm could be put to good use on go routes.

More than that, though, the prospect of having both Colter and Siemian on the field at the same time is simply too enticing to pass up. With Siemian under center and Colter lined up at either receiver or in the backfield, McCall could confound opposing defenses with trick plays and Wildcat formations.

Siemian is good enough to start for a Big Ten team this year and he's certainly good enough to make a sizeable impact on NU's offense. Think of Siemian more as a "second" quarterback than a "backup"; In other words, he'll be taking snaps more often than you might think.

Zack Oliver

Oliver was widely regarded as Louisiana's best quarterback throughout his recruitment, but the redshirt freshman is yet to make an impact at NU.

He completed 6-of-8 passes at the spring game and flashed the maturity, pocket poise and arm strength that made him one of the highlights of NU's 2011 recruiting class. He also tossed a "17-point" pick six to defensive tackle Chance Carter, demonstrating that he still has a ways to go before he's ready to face off against Big Ten defenses.

Oliver is an intriguing prospect, and with another year of Colter-Siemian apprenticeship, he should be well on his way to becoming the No. 1 option once Colter and Siemian graduate.

P.J. Carollo

Carollo lies even further down the depth chart. He took over during the end of the spring game, and looked downright overwhelmed.

That was just one performance, and Carollo competed well on scout team during spring practice. He should improve as he gains maturity, experience and becomes more familiar with McCall's spread attack.

Grade: B

While debate remains over Colter's ability to lead NU to its fifth straight bowl game, there's no question that he's one of the nation's most versatile athletes and a dynamic playmaker who can win games with both his arm and his legs.

Siemian is a reliable backup with the type of strong, accurate arm needed to succeed in this league. He'll have ample opportunity to prove himself this Fall. Oliver is a developmental project, a strong-armed, strong-willed prospect who will make an impact sometime during his NU career. Carollo continues to work hard and improve as he learns from Colter, Siemian and Oliver.

After losing Persa, one of the conference's best signal-callers in the past decade, drop-off is inevitable. But Colter proved himself as a viable replacement last season, and he should flourish in an offense tailored to fit to his unique skill set and athletic ability.

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